About Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus
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Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works — the Annals and the Histories —examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors. These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to (presumably) the death of emperor Domitian in AD 96. There are enormous lacunae in the surviving texts, including one four books long in the Annals.
Other works by Tacitus discuss oratory (in dialogue format, see Dialogus de oratoribus), Germania (in De origine et situ Germanorum), and biographical notes about his father-in-law Agricola, primarily during his campaign in Britannia (see De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae).
Tacitus was an author writing in the latter part of the Silver Age of Latin literature. His work is distinguished by a boldness and sharpness of wit, and a compact and sometimes unconventional use of Latin.
While Tacitus' works contain much information about his world, details regarding his personal life are scarce. What little is known comes from scattered hints throughout his work, the letters of his friend and admirer Pliny the Younger, an inscription found at Mylasa in Caria, and educated guesswork.
Tacitus was born in 56 or 57 to an equestrian family; like many Latin authors of the Golden and Silver Ages, he was from the provinces, probably either northern Italy, Gallia Narbonensis, or Hispania. The exact place and date of his birth are not known, while his praenomen (first name) is similarly a mystery; in the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris his name is Gaius, but in the major surviving manuscript of his work his name is given as Publius. (One scholar's suggestion of Sextus has gained no traction.)
Family and early life
The older aristocratic families were largely destroyed during the proscriptions at the end of the Republic, and Tacitus is clear that he owes his rank to the Flavian emperors (Hist. 1.1). The theory that he descended from a freedman finds no support apart from his statement, in an invented speech, that many senators and knights were descended from freedmen (Ann. 13.27), and is dismissed by prominent historians.
His father may have been the Cornelius Tacitus who was procurator of Belgica and Germania; Pliny the Elder mentions that Cornelius had a son who grew and aged rapidly (N.H. 7.76), and implies an early death. If Cornelius was Tacitus' father and since there is no mention of Tacitus suffering such a condition in the surviving record, it would likely refer to a brother instead. This connection, and the friendship between the younger Pliny and Tacitus, led many scholars to the conclusion that the two families were of similar class, means, and background: equestrians, of significant wealth, and from provincial families.
The province of his birth is unknown and has been variously conjectured as Gallia Belgica, Gallia Narbonensis, or even northern Italy. His marriage to the daughter of the Narbonensian senator Gnaeus Julius Agricola may indicate that he, too, came from Gallia Narbonensis. Tacitus' dedication to Fabius Iustus in the Dialogus may indicate a connection with Spain, while his friendship with Pliny indicates northern Italy. None of this evidence is conclusive. No evidence exists that Pliny's friends from northern Italy knew Tacitus, nor do Pliny's letters ever hint that the two men had a common background. Indeed, the strongest piece of evidence is in Pliny Book 9, Letter 23, which reports that when Tacitus was asked if he were Italian or provincial, upon giving an unclear answer, was further asked if he were Tacitus or Pliny. Since Pliny was from Italy, some historians infer that Tacitus was from the provinces, possibly Gallia Narbonensis.
His ancestry, his skill in oratory, and his sympathetic depiction of barbarians who resisted Roman rule (e.g., Ann. 2.9), have led some to suggest that he was a Celt; the Celts had occupied Gaul before the Romans, were famous for their skill in oratory, and had been subjugated by Rome.
Public life, marriage, and literary career
As a young man, Tacitus studied rhetoric in Rome to prepare for a career in law and politics; like Pliny, he may have studied under Quintilian. In 77 or 78 he married Julia Agricola, daughter of the famous general Agricola; little is known of their home life, save that Tacitus loved hunting and the outdoors. He started his career (probably the latus clavus, mark of the senator) under Vespasian, but it was in 81 or 82, under Titus, that he entered political life, as quaestor. He advanced steadily through the cursus honorum, becoming praetor in 88 and a quindecemvir, a member of the priest college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular games. He gained acclaim as a lawyer and an orator; his skill in public speaking gave a marked irony to his cognomen: Tacitus ("silent").
He served in the provinces from ca. 89 to ca. 93 either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. His person and property survived Domitian's reign of terror (81–96), but the experience left him jaded and grim (perhaps ashamed at his own complicity), and gave him the hatred of tyranny evident in his works.
From his seat in the Senate he became suffect consul in 97 during the reign of Nerva, being the first of his family to do so. During his tenure he reached the height of his fame as an orator when he delivered the funeral oration for the famous veteran soldier Lucius Verginius Rufus.
In the following year he wrote and published the Agricola and Germania, announcing the beginnings of the literary endeavors that would occupy him until his death. Afterwards he absented himself from public life, but returned during Trajan's reign. In 100, he, along with his friend Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile; Pliny wrote a few days later that Tacitus had spoken "with all the majesty which characterizes his usual style of oratory".
A lengthy absence from politics and law followed while he wrote his two major works: the Histories and the Annals. In 112 or 113 he held the highest civilian governorship, that of the Roman province of Asia in Western Anatolia, recorded in the inscription found at Mylasa mentioned above. A passage in the Annals fixes 116 as the terminus post quem of his death, which may have been as late as 125 or even 130. At all events it seems certain that he survived both Pliny and Trajan. It is unknown whether he had any children, though the Augustan History reports that the emperor Marcus Claudius Tacitus claimed him for an ancestor and provided for the preservation of his works—but like so much of the Augustan History, this story may be fraudulent.
Five works ascribed to Tacitus have survived (albeit with some lacunae), the largest of which are the Annals and the Histories. The dates are approximate:
- (98) De vita Iulii Agricolae (The Life of Agricola)
- (98) De origine et situ Germanorum (Germania)
- (102) Dialogus de oratoribus (Dialogue on Oratory)
- (105) Historiae (Histories)
- (117) Ab excessu divi Augusti (Annals)
The Annals and the Histories, originally published separately, were meant to form a single edition of thirty books. Although Tacitus wrote the Histories before the Annals, the events in the Annals precede the Histories; together they form a continuous narrative from the death of Augustus (14) to the death of Domitian (96). Though most has been lost, what remains is an invaluable record of the era. When it is remembered that the first half of the Annals survived in a single copy of a manuscript from Corvey Abbey, and the second half from a single copy of a manuscript from Monte Cassino, it is remarkable that they survived at all.
Rome, Roman Empire